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May 2003 Smooth Jazz Vibes title logo Brian Soergel's reviews of new smooth jazz CDs, written exclusively for smoothvibes.com.

Brian Soergel can be reached at riffzy@att.net


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Richard Elliot’s 13th solo album, Richochet (GRP), is a lucky one for fans: It’s one of his best. It comes off his two most recent CDs, Crush and Chill Factor, which together had a zillion memorable moments. But on Ricochet, Elliot’s husky sax has never sounded so fresh, the songs never so catchy and the passion never so robust. Like Euge Groove, Elliot’s slickly produced groove overflows with thick beats and tasty hooks that must leave sax players shaking their heads: Why didn’t I think of that? Elliot is smooth sax at its zenith. Unlike others who throw many song styles on a CD to create a mess of inconsistent listening, Elliot know how to do it right. Here are the styles:
1) Catchy, bouncy smooth: the radio-friendly and jingle-worthy Elliot sax sound of “Corner Pocket,” “Sake for Two” and “Sweet Memories.”
2) Let-loose uptempo soul/rock numbers: the more soulish sound of “Ricochet,” “Sly” and “So Good” and the rocky “Slam” (hint: the titles kinda give them away). These songs, although working as stand-alones, diminish the smooth vibe the rest of the CD establishes.
3) So-sweet ballads: the stylish “Rendezvous” and the stunning remake of “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” The latter has perfect, lite acid drumming and some of the sweetest riffs Elliot’s produced. The song’s a natural for sax.
4) The one killer song: Each Elliot CD has at one of ‘em. Here we have “Sweet Memories,” pumping out a reggae drums-bass-keyboard foundation, sweet synth whistles and romantic, soaring sax candy.
Ellliot’s close to making an absolute killer CD, which he will do when he combines categories 1 and 3 with category-4 songs. Smooth grade: B+

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It’s safe to say saxophonist Steve Cole has arrived on his third CD, NY LA (Warner Bros.). He gets airplay and he’s signed to powerhouse Warner Bros. So how’s the new CD? Pretty good. Cole’s collaborations with keyboardist/producer Brian Culbertson continue here on several songs and they are, as always, catchy as hell with lots of production and plenty of programmed goodies spicing up the sound. And there’s the now-familiar 2 minutes of sampled loops, “Interlude IV,” which are always irresistible. What’s different are three vocal tracks, always dicey for a smooth jazz artist. But at least two of them fit the overall mood here: “Tonight,’ a duet with Charlene Hines and Mauli B., is a slice of radio soul, while “Every Little Thing” is repeat-play-worthy, with Mauli B. crooning a first-rate, sexy soul classic that recalls the vocals and sounds of British soul/pop singer Craig David. The other vocal, the 10-minute-plus “Keep It Live,” has rap, so it might not be every smoother’s cuppa, but it’s got great energy and Cole blows some energetic, raw sax. More in tune with Cole’s style are pop songs without words such as “NY LA” – watch out for the irresistible chorus – and “Everyday,” where Cole’s roller-coaster pitch shifts ride over a husky beat. Cole goes into some new territory with “Missing You” and “Close Your Eyes,” romantic numbers that really sing with Cole’s jazzy playing. The latter song is enhanced by some creating overdubbing. Good enough for both coasts. Smooth grade: B+

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Guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., one of the hardest-working musicians in smooth jazz, quietly goes his own way every year. He’s on half the smooth-jazz CDs out there, and for good reason: His clear and sweet guitar lines have been known to make a song or two. On his sixth solo CD, Still Small Voice (Blue Note), it’s payback time, as stars such as Gerald Albright, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Lorber, Billy Preston and Sheila E. stop by for guest appearances. With a couple of exceptions (the rock/gospel “Changed” and the funky “Sportsman’s Park”), the vibe here is nice and slow – but with lots of expert playing – ending with an exquisite version of Brian McKnight’s “Back at One.” Whether soloing or playing chords, Jackson style is lyrical, a la George Benson, Lee Ritenour and Norman Brown, the latter especially on the sinfully delicious “Athens Park.” Check out the picking on “Blue Note,” a song with a smooth foundation and some very jazz inspiration from Jackson’s fingers. And “Walkin’” and “It’s a Shame,” two of prettiest guitar songs so far this year. “Dios Te Bendiga” is a special treat, a samba stroll on acoustic guitar (Jackson could definitely pull off a complete CD like this, maybe with some standards thrown in). Overall, though, Jackson’s smooth foundation mixed with busy guitar work make this a CD worth retuning to over and over. Smooth grade: A

 

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Guitarist Doc Powell slides and glides his guitar around 10 sumptuous songs on 97th & Columbus (Heads Up), a primarily electrical outing. I wasn’t going to mention George Benson, but since he interprets Benson’s “Breezin’,” there’s not getting around it. Like Benson, Powell has a warm, inviting approach to his music that’s apt to make listeners to break into smiles and head-boppin’. When Powell does switch to acoustic, as he does on “Ode to Chet,” the result is a warm ballad in the vein of Earl Klugh, as he does again on the electrical classical guitar on the so sweet “Two Hearts.” Powell plays smooth jazz, but he incorporates many styles and eras into his music – “97 & Columbus” (the song and the album) is a laid-back groove, with Ron Brown on sax – that has a soulful ‘70s vibe. There’s no mistaking the ‘70s on a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sun Goddess.” You may not recognize the title, but the song will be instantly familiar when you here it. You’ll recognize Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” that’s for sure. Both of the latter covers feature background vocals. This is by far Powell’s best and easiest-going CD so far, and is highly recommended. Smooth grade: A

 

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Veteran keyboardist Jeff Lorber cranks out his 16th CD with Philly Style (Narada), a funky and jazzy with lots of horns, upbeat melodies and an ‘80s style about it. Don’t buy this CD expecting a nice and smooth affair – it’s smooth jazz on the jazz and jam order. On the cover song, “Philly Style,” Richard Elliot guests on the sax and brings soul to a good car song – play it loud on a nice, long stretch. Lorber has never been my cup of tea, mostly because his music is more suited to an outdoor jazz festival. He has some nice stretches, but he burdens this CD with two vocal tracks and jamming that plays better on stage. When he does it right, he does it so good – “When She Smiles” is one of best ballads I’ve heard all year, and Lorber’s piano has never sounded better. What Lorber needs is more consistency on a CD, a more defined overall theme. Smooth grade: B-

 

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Gerald Veasley has been around for so long now it’s tempting to take his CDs for granted. When he debuted more than a decade ago, his bass-guitar CDs mostly highlighted his songwriting and the musical skills of others. Now that the bass guitar as a lead is a trend again in smooth jazz – a good trend – Veasley takes more of the center stage. On Velvet (Heads Up), he shines on the lead on tracks such as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Coup DeVille,” while letting Chris Farr carry the sax lead on the hit-worthy “Sarah’s Song.” Farr has a big role here, as the CD features his sax and Veasley’s bass a large percentage of the time. As the Braxton Brothers have proved, it’s a potent combination. “Luscious” and “Still Movin’ On” are prime examples – finger-snapping treats. Two more treats are “Forever,” a bass ballad solo where Veasley does some pretty amazing stuff, and “Let’s Do it Again.” The latter is the second time in recent months that Curtis Mayfield’s classic has been reworked – the first was by BWB and Cassandra Wilson. This version features Jaguar Wright’s full pipes. Smooth grade: A

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Added: 5/11/2003